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Changes in fertility and life expectancy are leading to a rapidly growing and aging world population—and an unsurpassed scale of the cancer problem—as countries undergo major transitions in development. As such, the traditional grouping of regions of the world into “more-developed” and “less-developed” is less relevant today. The Human Development Index (HDI), a composite measure of educational attainment and life expectancy, as well as level of income, is the best contemporary measure for socioeconomic development of countries.

Chart showing recent (2012) and future (2025) cancer burden by HDI (new cases in millions), based on projected demographic changes
Text alternative: Recent (2012) and future (2025) cancer burden by HDI

As countries transition towards higher levels of human development, their cancer burden will not only increase, but the types of cancer observed will also change.

Recent (2012) and future (2025) cancer burden by HDI (new cases in millions), based on projected demographic changes

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Changes in fertility and life expectancy are leading to a rapidly growing and aging world population – and an unsurpassed scale of the cancer problem – as countries undergo major transitions in development.

Cancers of the colorectum, lung, female breast, prostate, and stomach were the most commonly diagnosed cancers in both very high-HDI and high-HDI areas in 2012. Lung cancer is the most common neoplasm in medium-HDI areas. In the low-HDI areas, comprising mainly countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, the cancer profile is quite different, with cervical and female breast cancer ranked as the first and second most common cancers in both sexes combined in 2012, and with a number of predominantly infection related cancers still very common.

The evolution of cancers in women shows a consistent and very striking pattern that includes rapid declines in the incidence of cervical cancer offset by concurrent increases in female breast cancer. The earlier the year in which the two cancers intersect is a marker of the extent of economic transition in a given country.

Graph showing trends in female breast vs. cervical cancer incidence 1975-2010 in select countries by HDI status
Text alternative: Trends in female breast vs. cervical cancer incidence 1975-2010 in select countries by HDI status

The year of intersection of rates following secular declines in cervical cancer and rises in breast cancer is generally a marker of degree of socioeconomic transition.

Trends in female breast vs. cervical cancer incidence 1975-2010 in select countries by HDI status

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By 2025, 19 million new cancer cases will be diagnosed in men and women based solely on projected demographic changes. The increases in cancer incidence are proportionally greatest in lower-HDI settings.